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Drug store tobacco bans gain traction

By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / April 24, 2011

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The pace of Massachusetts cities and towns banning tobacco sales at pharmacies appears to be accelerating: Of nine such bans that have taken effect since early 2009, four began this year, and more are under consideration.

South of Boston, Sharon defeated a proposed ban April 11, but the Wareham Board of Health may opt for one, according to Bob Collett, director the Cape Cod Regional Tobacco Control Program.

Collett made a presentation to the Wareham board recently. “I’m confident that it will happen there,’’ he said. “They do understand the obvious hypocrisy of selling tobacco in a health care setting such as a pharmacy, and they have supported tobacco control efforts in the past.’’

Compared with the Cape and Islands, which make up the remainder of his organization’s service area, Wareham has by far the highest smoking rate, Collett said.

The town’s Board of Health is reviewing model legislation. The next step, if the board chooses to proceed, is to schedule a public hearing.

Board chairwoman Diane E. Allen declined to comment on a timeline or whether the board would have enough interest in the idea to hold a hearing. Nor would Allen, a registered nurse, discuss her personal views on the issue.

In Walpole, the ban took effect without incident last fall. William Morris, chairman of the Board of Health, said the board debated it carefully and heard no opposition from pharmacies, nor has he heard anything from pharmacies in the ensuing months.

A few residents did attend a Board of Health meeting to express their objections shortly after the decision, but the board did not wish to revisit the debate, he said. And no other complaints have been communicated to him since then.

“I think the best way to describe it would be a non-issue,’’ Morris said.

He said he voted for the ban, though he personally opposed it on the basis that people could buy tobacco a few doors away from the pharmacies. But seeing no objections from affected parties, he decided to vote in favor.

“I believe all board members, on any board, should vote on the facts and the greater good, rather than necessarily on personal opinion,’’ he said. “It would be very easy to say, ‘I don’t like this, so I’m not going to do it.’ ’’

On the Cape, Chatham has begun considering a ban, and Harwich is looking at it “in a very preliminary sense,’’ said Collett, the Cape tobacco control director.

Tobacco sales are now banned at 126 pharmacy locations, a number that could grow soon. The Worcester City Council gave preliminary approval to a ban this month and is expected to take a second vote in late May.

Supporters say it doesn’t make sense for pharmacies to sell products that harm human health, especially when they offer clinical services, as some pharmacies have begun to do.

Donald J. “D.J.’’ Wilson, tobacco control director at the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said it is too soon to know whether the ban will reduce smoking. But tobacco companies rely heavily on advertising at retail stores because their ads have long been banned from television, so tobacco’s absence from stores matters, he said.

Wilson, whose position is funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said the difference between pharmacies and other retailers selling tobacco is that pharmacies offer medical advice. That connection to health care, he said, sends the wrong message about tobacco and makes pharmacies’ tobacco sales a “weird outlier’’ in health care.

Here’s one scenario that occurs, he said: A doctor writes you a prescription for medicine to help you quit smoking, but you have to walk past a big cigarette display to get to the pharmacy.

He contends many pharmacists don’t like selling tobacco products, but if they work for the chains, they have no control over what the store sells.

Linda Rosen, health administrator in Sharon, agreed that pharmacies’ role in health care sets them apart. “They bill themselves more and more as health care providers,’’ she said.

Speaking personally and not for the Sharon Board of Health, Rosen said she fully supports the idea.

“My daughter is a pharmacist in a large independent pharmacy in Rhode Island, not a chain, and they have never sold tobacco products for the same reason,’’ she said.

But on the Sharon Board of Health, the majority questioned whether the ban was appropriate or worthwhile. Members said it wouldn’t stop people from smoking and represented a step toward curtailing individual freedom.

Member Andrew Stead compared the proposal to Boston’s ban on selling nondiet soda and other sugary drinks on city property, calling the Sharon proposal “a slippery slope.’’

Stead, Edward Welch, and chairwoman Susan Osgood Peck voted against the ban; Stanley Rosen and Jay S. Schwab voted in favor.

Siding with the opposition is the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, a trade association that represents stores. President Jon Hurst said the ban would hurt businesses and their ability to generate tax revenue and employ local residents.

“It’s a legal product,’’ he said. “Consumers are going to buy it, and they should have the freedom to buy it at the store of their choice.’’

As of mid-April, bans in Massachusetts communities affected 88 chain pharmacies, 22 independent pharmacies, and 16 pharmacies in supermarkets or discount stores.

CVS had the greatest number affected, with 45 stores unable to sell cigarettes or other tobacco products. In an e-mail, CVS public relations director Michael DeAngelis said the chain places tobacco products behind the counter, generally alongside smoking cessation products, and that the CVS MinuteClinic retail health clinics offer smoking cessation services.

Of the banned tobacco products, he said, “we make these products available for the convenience of our adult customers, but we do not advertise them.’’

Boston embraced the policy early, adopting it in 2008, the same year San Francisco became the first city in the United States to do so. Then came Needham and Newton in 2009; Everett, Walpole, Lancaster, and Southborough in 2010; and Oxford and Fall River this year. Most did not take effect for a month or more after they were enacted, which is why four have gone into effect this year.

Wilson said the trend continues the evolution away from a time when doctors appeared in cigarette ads. He said pharmacies have complied well, and no one has filed a lawsuit on the issue in Massachusetts.

San Francisco, in contrast, has faced a number of legal challenges. Walgreens sued because the original ban left out supermarkets and other stores that contained pharmacies, so the city amended the policy. And according to SF Weekly, the supermarket chain Safeway filed a lawsuit Feb. 18, arguing that the policy unjustly penalizes only supermarkets that have pharmacies, though other supermarkets sell health products.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.